Interview with Dr. John Dahlsen
Interviewee: Ms. Sophie Rosee: University of Canberra Degree student
You started collecting driftwood from shore banks during your college time to make furniture, then twenty years later you started doing it again more and became an environmental artist because of it. What made you remember that experience after twenty years?
“Well the timing is reasonably close to what your saying. First of all I started collecting driftwood when I was at the Victorian College of the Arts, during a time when not many plastics were washing up on beaches. You got lots of things washing up, but those days it was manly driftwood and I just wanted to make furniture and different sculptural forms and things for the place where I was living in Melbourne at the time. Seventeen years later, it was exactly seventeen years, I moved into a beautiful house environment that had a lime washed ceiling and walls, which reminded me very much of the driftwood look and I said to my partner, “ You know I think I would like to make driftwood furniture for this whole house, beds, couches, dining table, chairs everything.” and I said, “But we have to go right down to the Southern part of New South Wales, where it meets Victoria and we’ll have to do some four wheel drive trekking and climb down cliffs and that was the plan, and she was instantly excited about the idea.
When I went out to these beaches that I sourced driftwood off many years ago, I noticed that there were a lot of plastics. During that time I collected about eighty big jumbo garbage bags, full of plastics and originally I was going to take them to the local tip for recycling, but then I found myself getting more intrigued by the colours and shapes and by the items themselves. I started to see that it all could potentially become artworks, I didn’t know how, I never did it previously and had to picture it, as I had never done it before and that’s what really happened, beginning with furniture to plastic assemblages. Over the next few months I did make the driftwood furniture. Then I tipped all the plastic garbage onto my studio floor and saw that there was a potential palette. I put the reds in one corner, the blues in the corner, the pinks in the corner, the yellows in another corner and then the blacks and so on. Realising that I actually had a palette, so many artistic sensibilities started emerging and ideas of working with it, how to actually go about and create something aesthetically beautiful out of it all.”
You did an interview once with Carola Cotterill Dixon, one of her questions is about the people who influenced you when you were a student at the Victorian College Arts in Melbourne (Australia) and how you said the “energetic response” they had on you. Did they inspire you to create they way you do with some of your artworks?
“Again, this is a really good question and I remember when Carola asked me this in a previous interview. I think the truth for me was not necessarily what they painted. I never have been really directly derivative of any other artist’s works, but energetically I was inspired by the way that they work, because they took a lot of risks there and they did things, that which wouldn’t be possible or isn’t encouraged in art school or university these days. In one instance – I’ll give you an example where one of my lecturers, Gareth Samson, we called him Gary, he’s a practicing visual artist now, he’s seventy-five years old and he’s doing some of the best works in his life right now and he’s having exhibitions all over the world, he’s travelling to Germany at the moment and he’s in all sort of shows. He’s just had a retrospective at the in the National Gallery in Victoria. He shows in Brisbane at the Milani Gallery.
Gary came into the open studio one Monday morning and stretched up three very large canvases about two and a half metres by two metres wide on the wall. Stapled them all up, just began this process of just stapling these canvases upon the wall and proceeded with the production of three major works. Over the next period of a few weeks, Gary continued and just showed us his vision of how it is to be a practicing professional visual artist. While a lot of us were all there struggling away with our individual pieces and awkward paintings and things, we saw him come in and just start out with these colourful and sophisticated paintings and that sort of energetic response to the creative process will be something I will never forget. It’s been something that I’ve adhered to my own studio, with my own sense and also one thing that I’ve tried to encourage in my own students works whenever I mentor artists. That was one example, there were many other lecturers such as Fred Williams and Noel Counihan teaching me drawing and there are really significant figures, a number of people and some other students who went with me through those classes like the Archibald winner Louis Miller who was also a friend of mine at the time. The lecturers were all professional artists and included luminaries such as Allan Mittleman, Paul Partos, Bea Maddock, Graeme Fransella and others including Jenny Watson and Janine Bourke, they all had lecturing positions at the Victorian College of the Arts then, it was a very exciting time.”
You talked about visiting the Tate Gallery in London in which Mark Rothko, an American abstract artist exhibition was on, in which you talked about how you enjoyed it. Did you already know about the artist and is that why you went there?
“No, I was in London and I just wanted to visit the best galleries that I could in Europe, I was only a couple of years out of art school and I just wanted to explore and see what was going on. I walked into Mark Rothko, the Rothko Chapel they call it, at the Tate Gallery. They later on moved the whole exhibition over to the Tate Modern. I was completely perplexed by this work, the whole series of work. It was like walking into a temple and it profoundly affected me. I stood in that gallery and I had just the most profound experience. I just came to tears and had no idea as to why I came to tears. It just came from within. It was like a deep resonance of the work. A deep response to what I was feeling in the work. Later I discovered that he committed suicide and not only that, these works were done in a very dark period in his life where he was expressing a lot of emotional content in these works and that was something that I must have been picking up on, because I’m quite a sensitive individual and I believe that this is why I am an artist. It was like being in the presence of these works evoked all of that feeling in me, and must have triggered off some sort of recognition, I think, of some of the pain that he was going through, because I also have had suicide in my family.”
Your installation collaboration that you did in Indonesia in 2018 on the Bali Beaches. Was there a plan for this artwork and what material is it?
“Yeah there was a plan, because I was invited by the Australian Consulate to be part of a number of groups that were in Indonesia and to also be with the Indonesian Institute for the Arts (ISI), to create, I guess a collaboration. I got invited to teach a lot of students at this institute and a lot of local artists about how to work with beach found items and plastics that came washing up on the Balinese beaches. At one stage I realised the success of the particular project was really going to be based upon my successful planning and so I suggested that they focus on Styrofoam instead of having a multitude of washed up items, which might be confusing for a lot of people, especially in the short period of time we had to work with it. I asked the clean up crew to focus on building up a collection of Styrofoam, just washed up Styrofoam. I knew from my past experiences of making Totemic works, that I could teach a lot of the students how to create totemic work with Styrofoam and this is exactly what we did while in Indonesia with the help of the Australian Embassy and the Consulate.
The most beautiful pieces were created, probably fifty or sixty totemic pieces and floor pieces. I worked together with them on a lot of pieces as well and that’s how the collaboration sort of formed. The students brought an Indonesian aesthetic to the works, a really unique, particularly Indonesian flavour to these totemic works that were absolutely beautiful and very individual.
II think it was largely a success because of the planning. I was able to foresee that if I didn’t plan it all like this, it could be just a mayhem situation. The aesthetic quality that I was trying to achieve may not have been there if I had not instructed things to happen in a certain sequence, such as requesting using the one material Styrofoam. Of course because I was putting my name to it, I wanted it to realise a certain level of quality which it did, which I was very happy with.”
In your website page called abstract and figurative paintings and works on paper (1997 – 1980), there is an artist statement in which you talked about the serious fire that happened in your studio in Melbourne 1983, to which you had a life changing moment. You also said later that you also had a life changing moment when you saw driftwood and plastics wash upon the shoreline in Victoria one day. Were there reasons you had these epiphanies? Did you ever go back to that studio after the fire was out?
“I had a fire in my studio in 1993, it was a life changing moment because basically seven or eight years of all my paintings and pretty much everything I had was burned. It was a wonderful studio that I lived in at the time. The only thing I actually discovered after that fire when I returned, was a box of Derwent coloured pencils, my passport and about sixty dollars in cash which was in my passport and they were the only things left, everything else was destroyed. It was a life changing moment for me because I guess it released a renewal and a chance to really I guess reassess, where I was at in life and with having possessions and all of these different things and how I was as a person. This fire actually lead me into that situation when I really looked at myself as a person, and I saw I was on the right path. This helped lead me deeper into meditation. I was already on the path of meditation at the time, – I was working on myself, working on some of the issues I had, which I mentioned before with suicide in my life, my family I should say. So I guess it just compounded that and made it even stronger to throw a spotlight onto my inner journey, upon myself as a person and how important it was me to really maximise the qualities of myself as a person in this life-time and that’s really an ongoing important thing for me.
I didn’t really have a major change in my art practice until 1997, which was fourteen years later. I continued to be a painter, I continued to deepen my inquiry in meditation and into my inner being during that whole time. However, when I went to live in this beautiful house in Byron Bay, where I decided to make driftwood furniture for, and I went to the beaches and saw all of those plastics in 1996 or 1997 that’s when I had another life changing moment because I realized I didn’t want to paint anymore. I didn’t want to be a painter, I actually wanted to work with these materials and it was quite an: ‘aha’ moment, that light bulb moment of discovery. I think I related to many of the famous artists through this, who had that ‘aha’ moment where they just went ‘oh my God’ here’s an open door into my creativity that I never imagined and that’s what really happened. Then I became a sculptor and then assemblage artist and then I became an installation artist and I became all of these different types of, creative types, and I let painting go and it wasn’t for at least another ten years that I picked up paint brush, yeah about ten years later I began a series of paintings.”
You talked to Mike O’Connor in 2007 for the Article called “When Art Meets Trash” The Courier Mail, where you discussed about BB (Big Brother) and the discussion of the Thong Totems, one of your statements says: “The sort of audience figure they could reach”. Do you choose the audience you are wanting to capture before you do your artworks, if so, how do you choose?
“I just wanted to get in contact with the general public. My artwork had already been exposed to a lot of the art world and I felt that I could make a difference. Also by being exposed on national television, through a vehicle like this – and that was really the whole intention – they (BB) went through a green phase where they were really promoting everything about recycling and things like this, and that is why they chose to film the house on prime time television with my artworks and so people constantly got to see this. It was like it was in their lounge rooms every evening and for me it was a really positive thing. I got a huge amount of positive feedback about it because I think it worked.
I think it got a message across to people about renewal, about creating things out of what is seen as being ugly, what is seen as being trash and they saw the possibilities for things to be created with a message, with an environmental conscience and with something that is essentially aesthetically beautiful as well.”
What are the biggest challenges you have had when facing the creation of your artworks or the realm of your art?
“It’s an intriguing question this one, in that it’s been with me ever since I really made the decision not to recycle at the local rubbish tip all of these garbage bags full of plastics and items that I collected from the beaches, including coke bottles and buoys, thongs and all these items I was collecting off these remote beaches in Victoria. I remember seeing it washed up from the Bass Straight onto the beaches – the plastic items had been weathered by the sun, they’d been bashed around in the oceans and had salt and sand and things mixed onto to them and rounding their edges and creating those beautiful items and I was intrigued by these things. Big question was, was it possible to make these things into artworks?
There were a number of connotations that came with all the collected plastic items and one of them was that it was rubbish. Others were saying to me, it’s not beautiful, it’s ugly, and so you have all these different type of things that you are working with that essentially made the materials really difficult in terms of being an artistic medium. I just decided that I would go ahead with it. I decided to jump in the deep end and create art out of this and do the best as I could with whatever came out of that whole artistic exercise. There was a huge amount of trust in my aesthetic development over seventeen years of painting, together with an art school education at probably Australia’s most prestigious art institution. These things helped me to have that confidence, because I felt that I knew about colour, composition, form, line and a history of art, and that I could create these pieces where they had a certain validity in the art world. I didn’t know for sure how the art world was going to take it. I’d never seen anything like this being created and being presented art forms in the art world before so it could have all backfired.
However, after creating a number of series of works, I was approached to have an exhibition at the Washington Embassy in the US and shortly after, to have an exhibition in New York and different places like this. I was showing in Brisbane at the time and I was getting a lot of media coverage and really, something happened – something happened where it was really positive and it was embraced and it continued to be embraced.
I think in the year 2000, which was about three or four years after I first started this whole project, I won the Wynne prize at the Gallery of New South Wales. This was a major turning point for me because it was an acknowledgement at one of the highest levels. It was seen as being worthy of winning one of Australia’s most prestigious art awards. That was really a major turning point for me as well as a validation that I was on the right path. Then I got hung a number of times in the Wynne prize and the Sulman prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in following years, so it wasn’t just a one off thing. I felt like it was a constant journey of being validated, I just the continued to go along this path regardless of whether validation was happening or not.”
At what age or time in your life did you realize you were creative and wanted to pursue your dream of art? Did you always want to become an artist?
“I was probably sixteen, I always liked painting, I liked drawing when I was at school I constantly drew when we did maths, drew pictures, things like that and yes, I was somehow rather doing drawing than learning how to do maths and I was quite good also at doing English which was probably a good thing for me because it lead me eventually many years later into doing a PhD. I realized that English skills probably helped me to get to this point.
My interest in art was at the end of my college education in the last two years of my high school. I was at an all-boys boarding school in Melbourne, called Xavier College. It had a pretty expansive view on doing things including encouraging students to argue from both sides of a viewpoint. This was apart from all the negative things about abuse. I managed to escape all of that but there was a certain amount of bullying also at these kinds of schools. If you were a sports star or if you were going to be a lawyer or politician or something like this and get really high marks in science or other subjects like that, you were probably a little bit more safe. I was always a bit more sensitive, though I liked to mix it up with the boys, I liked to play football, I liked to play cricket and swimming and diving, things like that.
I was also reasonably sensitive to things and there were certain aspects of the Jesuit education that I stepped away from, it helped me to go a little further inward and fired my passion into a creative series of art, which is what I did in my second last year. That year I really focused on art it was everything for me. I was learning Latin, I was learning French and I was also learning other different things that my focus was going more and more on, and eventually I dropped the Latin and French classes and focussed more on visual art. Then one day in my last year there I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Melbourne and bumped into a young woman at the coffee shop. We started talking and she said she was studying at the Victorian College of the Arts which was right next to the gallery and she said that they’re going to interview people really soon and asked “Why don’t you apply?” and three weeks later I got interviewed by some of Australia’s leading painters, and a few weeks after that I received a letter telling me I had been accepted just before my exams, I was very fortunate and very happy.”
“In regards to the question “Did I always want to become an artist?” No, I had no idea, I thought I wanted to become a teacher, I think I applied originally to RMIT to do an arts course which was a kind of open-ended course and would’ve led to teaching or something like that. I ended up doing a Graduate Diploma of Art Education three years after completing my studies at the VCA in 1983, and taught for a little over a year in secondary school and then realized that it wasn’t for me and I didn’t teach much at all after that.
The reason why I started teaching later on in my life was because I completed a PhD and after its completion, a position came up at a university in Brisbane. I was already doing some lecturing at Charles Darwin University while I was doing my PhD. With this lecturing and tutoring I made the discovery that I really enjoy it, I enjoy passing on what I know as an artist, what I do and what I can share with my students, so that’s been a really valuable time for me. I found that I added another layer to my career as an art educator, as well as having an ongoing exhibiting art career, as I also know that my need to create constantly stays with me all the time. So I have simply added another layer rather than taken anything away.”
When you have an artist’s block do you have a way to get it unstuck and creativity to start flowing again?
“Yeah, a lot of people deal with artist’s block by just drawing every day, I deal with it by having trust that there’s a natural flow, just that in life there’s an energetic life flow. Sometimes you have high’s, sometimes you have low’s and they usually follow after each other. As an artist you will have highs, sometimes you will win major competitions or have sell out shows, then after that nothing happens for a while, you just go into a bit of a flat line. To live through that flat line takes a lot of trust, where you don’t abuse yourself, you don’t do anything negative towards yourself or other people, you just stay with it, you continue to motivate, you continue to be healthy, you continue having exercise and eating good food and having these sorts of particular positive approaches in your life.
For me it always best to deal positively with the times when things don’t really work out that much. When you are having a creative block, a good method is to stay healthy, you trust that the right thing will come and this has recently happened in my own life. After my PhD I was a little preoccupied with becoming an educator but at the same time I kept on trusting that the right thing would come at the right time, where I would start making art again and somewhere I knew the next body of work for me would come and that’s exactly what happened. It’s been the most exciting thing for me, where this new body of work has come out of thin air and I’ve been so vital and energised in my studio, in this creativity. That new series of works is now currently on display in Brisbane and I’ve just had a major show with this work in Sydney as well, which only finished last weekend and it’s just been brilliant to show this work and to have it to be received positively by people in the art world, by the general public, by my family and friends, its just been really great and really nice to know that trust is well placed.”
Out of all your artworks which would you say would have to be your biggest accomplishment and why?
“Well, I love my latest work. Somehow, it totally makes sense to me. I’m working on large scale paintings at the moment and when I say painting, I’m basically painting with very small micro pieces of plastic that I’ve been collecting off the beaches. My process is to mix it with ecologically sustainable resin. It’s a clear resin and I’m actually painting those plastics onto the stretched Belgian linen, into the shape of a garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, or as abstract details of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or detail of beaches when I see these plastics on the beaches. I’m totally into this – I’m loving it. It’s a meeting of my painting that I did for so many years and my assemblage work. I love the aesthetics of it, I love the fact that it’s so contemporary in the sense that when I walk on the beaches, that’s all I see on it these days – the small pieces of plastic because everybody else picks up the bigger pieces but not many are picking up the smaller pieces. It’s really interesting for me that I’m still kind of doing this after twenty five years or whatever it is, because back in the early days when I first started collecting beach plastics, I was collecting really large pieces of plastic because not many people then were really collecting it – very few people were collecting it off the beaches. It was just a phenomenon that took humanity by storm especially during the last ten years or so.
And then there’s always that series of sculptures called “Thong Totems” that won the Wynne prize in 2000, that has to be a piece that’s going to always remain in my memory as a turning point for me, because it received such acclaim at the time. It’s a work that I’ll never forget because it just had that thing about it happening at the right time, at the right place – that’s why I won. So I have to also say that work is so important to me. But usually my current work is the most important and my current work, I’ve been really enjoying that.”
Why are you drawn to be a contemporary environmental artist besides liking it or trying to fulfil the messages that the artworks convey? In the past before you became an artist would you still have chosen to become one even with knowing the struggles or impacts it has on you?
“Becoming an environmental artist, – I’ve always been a contemporary artist, but an environmental artist, well that happened very much so by accident, because I went to these beaches to collect driftwood, I didn’t go there because I was on an environmental mission, to find objects to make art into a environmental statement. It just happened very much so by accident, that I found these plastics by accident. In another way I also had the consciousness of environmental awareness to a certain degree, by just having the awareness of not leaving it there.
To not leave the plastics on the beaches, but rather to collect and take it off them and to have these stretches of beaches clean again when I leave them, that’s been an ongoing repetitive story that I’ve had for the last twenty-five years. I walk away from them and they are always clean because I’ve taken what ever I’ve found with me and I’m usually pretty detailed with what I collect and take away. I’m not on a mission to the point of being a Mother Teresa, if I go to the beach and I see there’s a large object and if I don’t have the capacity to take it away I’ll just look for the smaller objects and I’m totally okay with that because there are people who will come and take away the larger pieces. But yeah, I think the environmental side with me as a contemporary artist happened by accident. It was a happy accident and it’s been something that I’ve emphasised and got deeper into and learnt a lot about it.
As I mentioned before I did a PhD where my focus was on environmental art. It was called “Environmental Art – Aesthetics, Activism and Transformation. These are the three elements that are very important in my work. Aesthetics and beauty are very important elements in my contemporary visual art practice, especially when you’re working with very difficult mediums such as found plastics and trash. Environmental art encompasses for me all of these things, aesthetics, transformation and activism. The activism aspect is important to me too, to a certain extant due simply to the social statement I’m making with the materials I use. During my PhD, I positioned myself as an environmental artist and where I stand, whose shoulders I stand on in the whole history of environmental art, including Indigenous art as well, not because of being derivative of any of them, it’s just because of the themes or how the works similar themes are about taking care of the environment and about tuning into the environment and the certain mapping of the environment as well.”
“The life of an artist is a very mixed one and I think I’m blessed to be one, I love the journey that I’ve travelled, it’s been interesting and it took me to the four corners of the earth if there are four corners, it took me all over the world and I exhibited all over the world and met many good friends across the globe and yeah, had many achievements as an artist. Somewhere I either learnt from those difficult times and there are difficult times for every artist, there’s going to be difficult times where you will be confronted by so many different aspects within yourself whether it be poverty, whether it be riches, whether it be everything like what I’ve been through; incredibly poor sometimes. You just go beyond that and I accepted wealth into my life as well and that’s not easy as an artist, – it can be very challenging because a lot of artists question if they’re a sell-out, if they suddenly have some wealth into their life. You know, I’ve been very lucky with some of the investments I’ve made over the years, now I have a beautiful property in Byron Bay and yeah, I have quite a significant amount of wealth in my life and I’m very pleased about that and in no way do I regret that or have judgment, I’ve gone beyond all that and it’s the same with being poor. When I first went to Byron to live, when I arrived there I didn’t have that much money in my life, that was twenty-seven years ago, it slowly transformed.
There are times where you question yourself and whether you’re completely sane. For example, some people walked into my studio and they asked if I was okay and I was actually sane, because I was pouring these mildly stinky plastics on my studio floor and they knew me as this painter, who painted very fine minimalistic art works and at that time they jokingly said to me, “Are you doing okay John?” These sorts of questions you do ask yourself as well sometimes, especially if you have exhibitions and nothing sells you got to ask yourself and sometimes doubt yourself. Especially with the works I make that are very challenging, people may like it but they don’t necessarily line up to buy it either, there are times in my life where it does sell well and sometimes where it doesn’t and all of these times it just sort of flows which I mentioned before, where it sometimes brings you highs and sometimes it brings you to a flat line where not much is happening at all. It’s a bit of a challenge to accept this however I wouldn’t change it, I love being an artist, in that sensibility that encourages awareness, growth and meditation and these types of things and yeah, I wouldn’t change being an artist.”
What message would you give your past self if you were able to go back in time? What message would you like to give to other people, those who do or don’t want to be an artist?
“Just that you’ve got every reason in the world to trust yourself. This is something over the years that I’ve learnt – to trust myself but there are times where you will go through what you might call the darkness of the soul which I’m sure every one goes through. This I think is a gift and there we are challenged to bring out the best inside ourselves to deal with these situations. But that is all that I would say, is that you can completely trust yourself cause everything is going to be okay.”
“It’s worth the risk, being an artist can be a risky business and when I say business well it is business, it’s a business where you have to take responsibilities, no one’s asking you to be an artist it’s you who are deciding this path. You’re the one that wants to create and that’s a tough one to get, because as kids we are so used to blaming either mum or dad or the others, when things don’t go our way, that even many adults these days blame other people or the situation without truly looking within themselves. So my message would be to bring all of that back to yourself and that you’re responsible to trust that it’s going to be okay, that it can be a really incredibly, enriching time with being an artist and it’s completely one hundred percent worth it.”